/ spirituality

The digital and the sacred

Today at UMW, Kate Bowles recounted an experience in a cemetery with her daughter. She was inadvertently standing on a grave, and her daughter told her not to "stand on him." To Kate, this was a reminder of the way in which we relate to people in history through our activity in the present, and she connected it to the way we relate to each other online. We find artifacts ― photos, videos, writings ― made by humans, but we engage them in their absence. In some cases, this disembodied experience causes us to forget the relational nature of that encounter. We need to be reminded that though mediated by digital technology (or the passage of time), our activity in the world is relational, connecting us to people in other places and times. We need to be reminded to respect and care for each other.

As I reflected on this, I was reminded of times when I tend to avoid the digital: family dinner and worship. There are other activities where it is impossible or impractical to "go" online (a phrase Sean Michael Morris problematized during the same panel discussion). And there are times when I am so invested or interested in what I am doing that I don't think (or want) to "check my webs", as my wife and I often say. When a ding from my phone is an unwelcome nuisance.

But family dinner and worship at church are times that I, or my family in general, have decided we will not pull out our digital devices and go online, even if we feel the urge. (I will sometimes look up something said during a sermon on my phone, or if traveling I might use my tablet or phone to read Scripture instead of packing my Bible. But even then, I don't "live tweet" the sermon. And it feels a little weird.)

Reflecting on these internet-free zones in my life, and connecting them to Kate's cemetery story, I realized a common theme: the sacred. Whether devoutly religious, superstitious, or simply respectful of people in mourning, most people I know treat cemeteries as special places, worthy of solemnity and respect. In a word, holy (set apart for a special purpose). The same is true of a worship service, at least in my tradition.

But what about family dinner?

We've decided that it is important to be fully present with our kids, not to divide our attention. I've been in the restaurant on the weekend and walked past the child earnestly seeking the attention of the parent across the table, face buried in a "smart" phone. We don't want that for our family. We want our kids to know that they have our unconditional love, and that they can have our full attention just because they're our kids. Not because they're more interesting than some internet meme. Or because they do something to wrest our attention away from the device. And the same goes for our marriage.

But it's more than that. Our kids don't bring books to the table, we don't watch videos while we eat (except on the rarest of occasions, and even then it's probably just dessert), and we leave the phones and computers away. We do what we can to keep from overlapping schedules so that we can have family dinner on most nights. To us, there is something sacred, something holy about family dinner.

This perhaps partly comes from our religion. The family plays an important role in Presbyterian life, and holds a significant place in Reformed covenant theology. Fellowship around a meal is also a major focal point of (Orthodox) Presbyterian church life outside of the worship service. (Perhaps intentionally drawn from the models of fellowship in the Early Church, centered around the "breaking of bread and prayers" ― both sacramentally and socially.)

But it's also just the kind of family we want to raise: one that can be fully present with each other, physically, emotionally, and attentively. Corporately driven online media is designed to pull at our attention and emotion. It makes claims on parts of ourselves we want to reserve for our family. There's a resistance needed, if we're to have the kind of control of our attention and relationships that we want.

Christian philosopher James K. A. Smith writes about the mall as a "liturgy" that shapes our desires and the way we think and interact with the world, a liturgy that needs to be countered in worship and educational settings. I think most of the media we consume online, and certainly corporate social media, is part of that "mall". It must be countered with another liturgy if we are to be able to resist its pull.

And that's why I think that I, and likely many others, cordon off part of my life as media-free, offline spaces. And I think that's why those spaces tend to be things that hold the status of the sacred in some way. I feel, both consciously and unconsciously, a need to resist certain elements of digital, "social" media. I need a place, a liturgy, in which to reorient myself attentively, emotionally, and relationally.

But I'm still missing a piece of the puzzle here. I don't pray or eat dinner with my family just to keep myself in healthy media consumption practices. The sacred was already there. And as I hinted above, when I do pierce the veil and bring the digital in to some of these spaces, it feels wrong. Or at least odd. Why is that? Is there something inherently profane about the digital? Or is it just manufactured social pressures that I've internalized over the years? After all, I grew up in churches that would never use an electric guitar.

Anyway, I don't have an answer here. Just connections my mind started to make as I heard Kate's story in the context of a discussion about ethical online learning. I'll keep thinking. And meditating.